James Gustave Speth’s America the Possible

CLICK THE COVER TO VISIT THE BOOK’S AMAZON PAGE.If you want a hard-headed analysis of the global disaster that is looming—and possible pathways to cope with that challenge in sustainable ways—then you need to read books by the former head of Yale’s school of environmental studies James Gustave Speth.

Several years ago, we strongly recommended Speth’s prophetic, research-based manifesto, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. This week, we are reminding readers of that earlier book in our coverage of Jacob Needleman’s new book, An Unknown World.

There’s no coincidence that this is the same week we are receiving America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy. This is Speth’s newest book that repeats—and expands on—his appeal for a new progressive vision as well as a worldwide network to work for social, economic and environmental change. World events are moving so rapidly now that thinkers from realms of religion, like Jacob Needleman, and science, like Speth, are honing their messages into clarion calls that just might make a difference.

In his earlier book, Speth ended with some strong questions to teachers, religious leaders, social activists, scientists as well as anyone else who would listen and start thinking. Now, he is mapping out an even clearer appeal that he describes as a new progressive movement.

Toward the end, he writes: Throughout this book, I have made references to the various progressive communities. Note the plural. What does not exist yet, and what must now be built with urgency, is a unified progressive community. He explains in a clear-eyed way why most sympathetic men and women seem determined to construct barriers that so far are hobbling any hope for a unified movement.

Who can help? As he argued in his earlier book, Speth says that we need a deep, widespread and sustained effort to form and share “a different story.” One key source for that new story is social movements. Speth writes: Social movements are all about consciousness raising, and if successful, they can help usher in a new consciousness. … The proliferation of protests in cities across our country in 2011 may have signaled its beginning.

But that’s not enough, Speth concludes. Writing as a secular scientist, he argues that we must engage the world’s religions, religious teachers and congregational leaders:

Mary Evelyn Tucker has noted that “no other group of institutions can wield the particular moral authority of the religions.” The potential of faith communities is enormous, and they are turning more attention to issues of social justice, peace and environment. … In his 2009 encyclical, Charity in Truth, Pope Benedict XVI called for a radical rethinking of economic life, the profit motive, and economic disparities. Spiritual awakening to new values and new consciousness can also derive from the arts, literature, philosophy, and science. Consider, for example, the long tradition of “reverence for life” stretching back to the Emperor Ashoka more than 2,200 years ago and forward to Albert Schweitzer, Aldo Leopold, Thomas Berry, E.O. Wilson, Terry Tempest Williams, and others. … Cultural transformation won’t be easy, but it’s not impossible either.

Speth ends his new book with poetry of Seamus Heaney:
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

Speth concludes: “Full of hope, it is time to rise up and make history.”

This new book is a great choice for individual reading. It’s also a terrific choice for small-group discussion both in congregations and in secular settings. Given Speth’s stature, the Yale University Press publishing imprint and the balanced sources from which this book draws, there is no religious-secular boundary here preventing America the Possible from being discussed in any setting where people gather.

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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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